Thursday, April 3, 2008

Scopic Regimes

Here’s a strange congruence of interests. Patrick Wright’s book The Village That Died For England describes the requisitioning by the British Army of Tyneham, a small village in Dorset. The village was used initially for practice in advance of the Allied invasion of Europe and lies within large tracts of MOD land where full scale war games are still played out. Although only officially ‘borrowed’ from the villagers, Tyneham has never been given back.

Wright’s book is about much more than just Tyneham, though, which he uses as a jumping off point for a meditation on English rural radicalism, pastoralism, the Picturesque, the writer Mary Butts and a whole host of other eccentrics, oddballs, political extremists, aristocrats and army flunkies. Making an unexpected cameo appearance at one point are various members of the Archigram group who set architecture student projects there when teaching at the AA in the 1970’s. Coming across like an only slightly less absurd version of Withnail and I, David Greene and Warren Chalk buzz around the place with their long haired prodigies (including young Will Alsop) in clapped out vehicles and stride into local boozers ordering quadruple whiskies.

Archigram’s interest in the dematerialisation of architecture and with landscape as a kind of serviced amenity finds an odd parallel in the controlled territories of MOD land, where vast targets sit in the landscape like giant Pop Art sculptures, and tanks roam the planes like miniature walking cities.

The controlled and territorialized landscape of military manoeuvres is like an apocalyptic version of the English taste for the picturesque. Here an enthusiasm for controlling and mapping out large areas of landscape, the scopic control required by the battleground general, is not so far from Capability Brown’s manipulations of nature for the enjoyment of wealthy landowners. Instead of Gothic follies romantically consumed with Ivy, MOD land leaves the bombed out fragments of places like Tyneham.

Gillian Darley describes in her book Villages of Vision, the vogue for wealthy landowners in the 18th century to remove unsightly houses and dwellings that lay in the way of their view of the countryside. Frequently, their country houses would end up some miles away from the re-positioned village, with only the church for company as a reminder of where the village had once been. Sometimes bits of the cottages would be retained as romantic ruins, evacuated and aestheticised according to the picturesque tastes of the upper classes. Slowly, rights of way might be opened up back across the landowners estate to encourage ruddy faced peasants to walk across like a theatrical troupe of unpaid extras. All this was according to the picturesque conventions landscape designers such as Brown and Humphrey Repton and borrowed from the paintings of Claude Lorrain where simple peasants lolled under trees and worked in arcadian splendour. The ha-ha, a deep ditch separating the landowners immediate garden from the rest of his land, allowed a seemingly endless sweep of the countryside to be co-opted into the experience, whilst controlling the movements of peasants and animals lest they stray too close.

For a persuasive but slightly terrifying exploration of the idea of the aestheticisation of the landscape of war, read Jeff Wall’s essay Dan Graham's Kammerspiel, or at least the bit on American architectural legend Philip Johnson. Wall conducts a forensic examination of Johnson’s notorious involvement in neo-fascist organisations whilst at university in the 1930’s and, in particular, his trip to Europe as a reporter following the German invasion of Poland in 1938. Wall recounts Johnson’s slavering descriptions of the burnt out wreckages of Polish villages, the smouldering remains where most of the houses had been exhumed by fire, leaving only the brick foundations and the odd chimney standing. Wall then makes a leap to an astounding reading of Johnson’s famous Glass House in Connecticut. Here, the house itself is dematerialised by its glass walls, so that the only non-transparent elements are the low brick walls on which the glass sits and the circular brick tower containing the bathroom and the fireplace. Walls’ audacious analogy suggests that Johnson deliberately evoked the burnt out houses he had seen in his youth following the blitzkrieg, and recreated them in the bucolic picturesque landscape of his New Canaan estate.


Matt said...

Cheers for the great post.

I went looking for Tyneham during the warm weather we had in February. It's in the most remarkable location in a deep valley between the Purbeck cliffs and a thin, high ridge of chalk and is largely hidden from the naked eye. Predictably, I guess, the routes down to the village that cross the clagged and cratered MOD land, were shut that day so it remains, for me at least, a rumour of an absence. Which feels just about right.

Charles Holland said...

Yes, I've been to Purbeck too but not to Tyneham. I came across a great website of lost or absent places via the Home Ludens website and now seem to have lost it! I'm going to search again and maybe link to them. I remember in particular a village in Cheshire that was evacuated to make way for a reserviour, the valley flooded, then drained again so that the village 'returned' as it were.

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